SAN ANTONIO — The layman's assumption is that the Miami Heat will win the championship again because of the brightest star power, and it's true that the NBA has always leaned that way in a basic sense.
What is overlooked is how often superstars have fallen short when their supporting casts haven't been quite strong enough...or just as often, supportive enough.
It's often not just depth of talent behind the stars.
It's quality of connectivity on the court to those stars.
With the Western Conference Finals beginning Monday night, let's remember to work from a fundamental premise:
Miami and Indiana won the most games in the East. San Antonio and Oklahoma City won the most games, period.
The Spurs and Thunder did that and stand where they are now because they played with superior teamwork this season than the Heat or Pacers.
Yes, even the Thunder, widely assumed to be all about Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook's star power, possess a team defense far better than most appreciate. It's a spirit that dates back to the days when the Thunder were heralded for a unique community of young players growing together. The story of the Western Conference Finals is going to be whether Oklahoma City can keep that defensive togetherness intact without just-injured Serge Ibaka and his 2.7 blocks per game.
Still, Thunder coach Scott Brooks said the game plan against the Spurs remains true to OKC's historical form: "You have to guard them."
That's the series in a nutshell: The Spurs' fabulous team offense versus the Thunder's team defense.
In their four regular-season meetings, only once did the Spurs offense go off, when it shot 55 percent (but struggled some with turnovers) and still lost a game put to bed late by a Durant three, an Ibaka steal and another Durant three.
In the other three games, San Antonio uncharacteristically shot 39, 43 and 43 percent. Oklahoma City won all four games.
If the Thunder are going to win this championship, they might well have to eliminate the teams ranked third in field-goal percentage (Clippers), second (Spurs) and first (Heat). Making the last two-thirds of that climb without Ibaka, who has a knack for help defense and the athletic size to enforce it, is awfully daunting.
In those four Thunder-Spurs matchups this season, Ibaka was by far the best rebounder (11.5 per game) on either side and blocked 16 shots. As noted by USA Today's Sam Amick, the Spurs averaged 93 points per 100 possessions with Ibaka on the floor and 120.8 with him on the bench.
If the Thunder lose their defensive solidity now, the Spurs might have the best of both their worlds, scoring on Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili two-point drives and everyone's three-point kicks.
And that's entirely possible, because the Spurs' teamwork on offense is spectacular.
It's hard to sit in admiration of any team's gritty, cohesive defense that forces the opposition into an ugly shot—the way the early Tim Duncan-era Spurs played and won, actually. But these Spurs have demonstrated how much harmony matters by passing the ball with a willingness and rapidity that looks like they're playing a whole different ballgame.
The Spurs' biggest "star" these days is Parker, whose prominence among the league leaders only came in, of course, assists—where he averaged 5.7, merely 20th in the NBA this season. But Gregg Popovich—who would rather credit Duncan for Duncan's true willingness to be coached than his coaching acumen—has cultivated an environment where the top players are accountable to all.
And the connectivity among team leaders Duncan, Parker and Ginobili is soon to be officially beyond compare.
The Los Angeles Lakers' Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and Michael Cooper won 110 NBA playoff games, the most ever. Duncan, Parker and Ginobili have won 109.
They aren't nearly a "Big Three" in the way seen in Miami; the same principles go for the Spurs' trio as for everyone else on the team: Keep passing until you get a great shot for someone—which means you don't take your good shot, no matter how many rings you already have.
It's the sort of approach that allowed the Spurs to take a humdrum game in Cleveland in early March and make it historically beautiful, with 39 assists on 43 baskets (91 percent!). It was the first time in league history a team had 13 different players record an assist.
And yes, the Spurs can still defend a little, too.
In this golden era of NBA advanced stats, let's go old school for a moment and look at season field-goal percentages, offense and defense, because they confirm all that has been seen in the playoffs.
The Eastern Conference was filled with flawed teams:
The Chicago Bulls (30th on offense), Charlotte Bobcats (25th), Toronto Raptors (22nd) and Indiana Pacers (17th) can't score. The Atlanta Hawks (21st on defense), Washington Wizards (18th), Brooklyn Nets (17th) and Miami Heat (16th) can't defend.
(That's right, the Heat don't defend like title teams almost invariably do, no matter how it looked on that last possession of their series against the Nets. The Heat are going to have to flip a team-defense switch or be awfully special on offense to overcome the fatigue of a fourth consecutive NBA Finals trip and win again.)
In the West, first-round losers such as the Houston Rockets (fifth on offense, seventh on defense), Golden State Warriors (ninth, fourth) and Memphis Grizzlies (seventh, ninth) were all top 10 on both sides of the ball.
The Los Angeles Clippers were third on offense and fifth on defense but lost in the West semifinals to the Thunder, at which point Clippers coach Doc Rivers was asked about Oklahoma City's viability as a title favorite now.
"I thought the whole West is good enough to win it all," Rivers said. "All eight teams. I'm not joking."
The Spurs (second on offense, eighth on defense) and Thunder (sixth, third) are atop that pile of West teams now, ready to decide what comes next, ready to show that collective greatness can overcome individual marvels.
That teamwork wasn't quite enough in the NBA Finals last season for the Spurs against the Heat's star power. This season, though?
"They're better. They're healthy," Rivers said of the Spurs. "I personally think they're on a mission."
Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.
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